AIDS AND RELIGION IN AMERICA
Bishop Priamo Tejeda
The child was beautiful, like every child. I have asked myself many times if there are "ugly" children, or not beautiful. I have not seen them. Even when they are ill, they retain that exceptional beauty that is so proper to children. This one was not only beautiful, he was sweet and alert. So I asked him, "Do you pray to God?" And he answered: "Yes, I do, every night." Then I asked him again, "And when you pray, what do you tell God?" "When I pray," the beautiful child said in a very convinced manner, "I pray and ask God If I could help him a little bit."
TRADITIONS OF COMPASSION AND ACTION: ROMAN CATHOLIC
My first contact with the reality of HIV/AIDS was very peculiar. It happened many years ago. It was at the beginning of the pandemic in a small city, Bani, in the Dominican Republic. I was delivering a lecture in the Cathedral Hall on the realities of this new illness called AIDS--in Spanish, SIDA. There was a question and answer period at the end of the talk and three men, one after another denied vehemently the existence of the virus causing the illness: One said all of it had been invented by the priests and the Church to try to prevent men from having fun, having sex. The other two said it was all political and had been invented by the F.B.I. In other words, AIDS was an invention; it did not exist.
I realized right then and there, back in 1983, that one of the most important things to do was to fight ignorance. There was a need to organize seminars and lectures and panels at all levels of the civil society. There was need to preach about it in our homilies. Yes, definitely teaching had a role, an important role to play.
CARITAS INTERNATIONAL, a Catholic network for relief, social action and human promotion, established in some 150 countries of the world, during its General Assembly in 1987 in Rome decided to establish an international group for HIV/AIDS. This worldwide group, now a Task Force, has existed for almost 12 years. Its members, from all the continents, meet regularly every 8 or 9 months, and have stimulated the national and diocesan levels of Catholic Charities to get involved in the work of HIV/AIDS through education programs, support groups, housing, day care centers, etc. Even a manual for care givers has been published, as well as liturgical material for celebrations of the care, compassion and hope that are needed to deal with this pandemic. In the middle of the horror and the fear of death, rejection and prejudice that the pandemic had created, there was need of a space for reflection, for love and understanding, for compassion and acceptance, and for commitment.
The pandemic presented the Catholic Church and to all churches with a big challenge:
There was the challenge to evaluate the role and the need of SEX EDUCATION: THE FORGOTTEN ITEM.
The challenge of offering compassion to situations that were considered contrary to the principles of sexual morality but that had to do a lot with human nature, and were seen through an inflexible interpretation of the concept of natural law. And the challenge to respect personal decisions, withhold judgement, and consider each human being, a creature of God, in God’s image and likeness and therefore worthy of respect, love and compassion.
The church had to face these challenges of tolerance and acceptance. Yes, the illness brought about suffering and had devastating effects in society in general. We Christians were not transported to another planet. AIDS was happening in our midst, in our society, in our church, in our homes.
It was part of our lives. . . . we Christians had to face the challenge and be compassionate, if not out of conviction, at least out of necessity.
SOCIETY, HAD AIDS; MY COUNTRY, YOUR COUNTRY HAD AIDS. MY CHURCH, YOUR CHURCH, HAD AIDS.
I remember a very unique experience of "conscientization." In Honduras, Central America in the diocese of Choluteca, the Bishop, Raul Corriveau, organized a diocesan HIV/AIDS Awareness Week. For a week, a team offered talks, explanations, advise to all levels of the church and to society at large. The priests, sisters and seminarians were involved, the lay leaders both male and female, the teachers, the students, the military, the local government, the nurses and doctors, all other professions. There was not a level of society untouched.
We often say, in the Latin American church, that "the poor evangelize us". Yes, they continuously teach us gospel values with their daily activities and attitudes, with their compassion. Antonia's husband had died of AIDS, two years before. Antonia herself had AIDS and she agonized over the future of her four children.- So she called the parish priest of San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic, and told him she wanted him to do something about it, since she was about to die. Father Miguel Angel explained the situation to the community at all Masses the next Sunday. The community was very poor; they had just the bare essentials. Yet they were also wealthy: they had faith, love, hope and compassion!
Antonia's children were taken in by two families, who already had three and four children each. They were accepted as members of the family. Very little consideration was given to new expenses and family budget or bedroom size or even beds; they would share with the children what they had, period. It was so simple: the orphans found a home.
The church cannot stress enough the responsibility of the Christian community in the face of the pandemic. While the involvement of government is needed, states and counties, the grass-roots level, the Christian community, as we like to call it in Latin America, plays a very important role in the ministry of compassion.
It is this conviction that has moved some dioceses to establish ministries of HIV/AIDS with participation of a small team in each parish. The team is given some training in caregiving and its members become the helpers of those who are sick, visiting and comforting them, as well as their relatives and friends. They become volunteers to visit the homes and offer the support of faith and hope. Since most of those infected with the virus do not have access to the medicines or treatment that are taken for granted here in the States, the role of faith and hope and the element of compassion become more important.
Bubula is a beautiful human being. She is a woman of faith, very poor, and she has joined the team for the ministry of HIV/AIDS in her parish. Faith is the key element in her life and she is visiting on a regular basis Juan, a man over sixty years of age, a patient in the local hospital. Now, the doctors know Juan has AIDS, and the nurses do not want to go near him. They are frightened at the possibility of contagion. They are prejudiced and reject him; they ask him to leave the hospital. But Juan is a migrant from Haiti, all alone, and has nowhere to go. Bubula, a widow, lives alone and she decides to take him home. She feeds him, washes his clothes, prays with him. All the other members of the parish team pitch in and help. Juan dies peacefully and happy several months later, having experienced compassion and love in his illness.
Finally, the different churches and religious traditions have the challenge of UNITY in the field of compassion. The divisions that exist among us continue to be, in my opinion, a scandal and a lack of testimony to our faith. Let us hope that what theology and the Word of God have not been able to achieve yet, solidarity and compassion in facing this pandemic might bring about. Let us continue to hope and pray that, united in compassion, we can cast out fear, ignorance, prejudice and judgement, and can move forward efficaciously in defeating this pandemic. Let us hope that every Christian, every believer in any comer of the World, will pray to God and ask in all simplicity, like the child at the beginning of this paper, if we "could help Him a little bit."
No, the pandemic is not over yet. We have to continue to fight ignorance and apathy. There is much work and much prayer to be done. There is much unity to be achieved.